The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Dom Hemingway

I don't know if you can peg it down definitely to one film or one year. But somewhere around 2000, Jude Law seemed poise to become the next big thing. An incredibly talented actor, he was also a fan favorite for the ladies and more than capable of handling an action movie or heavy drama. never quite happened. He's got a long list of really good movies to his name, but it's been interesting watching his career over the last 10 years or so. Today's entry? A dark, truly fun performance from Law in 2013's Dom Hemingway.

It's been a long, slow 12 years, but Dom Hemingway (Law) has put his time in. Sentenced to a lengthy jail sentence after being caught red-handed during a robbery, Dom opted to not rat out his employer and paid the price. His time is up though, and he's finally free. Dom meets up with his friend and former partner, Dickie (Richard E. Grant), as soon as he gets out and proceeds to Live It Up for several days, more than making up for lost time. Now though, it's time to get down to business. Dom is supposed to meet that employer he never ratted out, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), a menacing, powerful crime boss who could wipe out a rival with the snap of a finger. Dom has an idea of what to expect from their meeting, hopefully receiving a sizable reward for keeping his mouth shut. Ever the live-wire though, Dom catching up with the spirits blows up in spectacular fashion when he meets Fontaine. Well, things just got interesting. Has this low-level safecracker pushed his luck too far?

Yowza. What a movie. There's something to be said for British crime movies, especially those like 'Hemingway' that just throw caution to the wind and go for it. From director and screenwriter Richard Shepard, this is an extremely dark, truly funny, vulgar, vicious crime flick. I loved it. It is highly stylized and clearly influenced by both Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino, both in terms of that style but also the dialogue and the violence (mostly kept off-screen). Title cards introduce new chapters almost like we're reading a book. Everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) is particularly nasty in this crime-riddled world where all our players typically look out for No. 1 above all else. Now all that said, this is pretty vulgar basically from the get-go so it most definitely is NOT for everyone. If you're looking for a good test, here it is. The opening scene has a woman performing a sexual act on Dom as he talks up a freaking, filthy storm. It goes on for at least a couple minutes.

Easily offended? Probably not for you.

And there's that Jude Law fella. I saw a trailer for this crime drama/comedy at least a year ago and was curious immediately. Reviews were almost uniformly mixed, but they all seemingly loved what Mr. Law did with the titular character. They were right. Law makes this movie. He just goes for it from the opening scene and things are off and running. His energy can only be described as manic mixed with rage, fury, frustration and fear. If you combine those things, how can't it be entertaining?!? He's not the most likable individual, but my goodness, is Law's Dom Hemingway endlessly fascinating. You see the ups -- getting out of prison, reuniting with Dickie -- and the bad that's usually self-inflicted as he puts his foot in his mouth over and over again.

Kudos to Jude Law for playing this part. It isn't a pretty boy performance or even remotely glamorous. He reportedly gained 20-plus pounds to play Dom Hemingway, doesn't hide his receding hairline, and favors an amazing beard that blends well with his suit that's...well, 12 years old. There is a dark, dirty and funny style to this safecracker trying to prove he's not past his prime. I loved the dynamic he has with Grant's Dickie, two friends and partners who bitch and moan at each other like brothers. Differences and heated arguments aside, they are friends, however twisted. Their dialogue crackles, and their scenes together just flow so effortlessly. It is in those moments that the movie is at its fast-moving, stylish best.

This is Law's movie, and the cast doesn't feature a ton of huge names but there are some solid parts just the same. As I mentioned, I especially liked Grant as Dickie, Dom's longtime partner and friend. Bichir doesn't have a huge part, but his scenes are certainly memorable, a seductively intimidating crime boss who could kill with a snap of his finger. Madalina Diana Ghenea is his girlfriend, accustomed to the finer things in life. Emilia Clarke (of Game of Thrones fame) plays Dom's estranged daughter, now married and with a son while Kerry Condon plays Melody, a prostitute Dom keeps crossing paths with. And last but not least, Jumayn Hunter as Lestor, the son of Dom's old nemesis, potentially holding a job offer but who might -- just might -- still be holding a grudge for a past transgression.

I wasn't always sure where this film was going. When the storyline featuring Dom's estranged daughter was brought up, I was worried things might get a little sappy, too familiar. It doesn't. Like so much else here, it all blends together pretty seamlessly. It does know where it's going, and often times via impeccable timing and some lucky coincidences. Here's the thing though. Yeah, this is dark and dirty and downright filthy at times, but I can't remember the last time I laughed this much at a movie. True, real, out-loud laughs. A highly recommended flick, especially for those fans who love dark British humor mixed with the almost always reliable British crime angle. Well worth a watch.

Dom Hemingway (2013): *** 1/2 /****

Friday, May 22, 2015

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Like the western, the historical epic has seemingly gone the way of the dodo bird. The genre was at its most popular in the 1950s and 1960s, turning out gigantic epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, El Cid, Spartacus, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and that's just some of the biblical epics. About a year ago, I was naturally curious when I read that director Ridley Scott was at the helm of a new epic about Moses and the Hebrews' escape from Egypt. Reviews were mixed to negative, but it managed to make decent money in theaters. So where does 2014's Exodus: Gods and Kings fall? Let's see.

In ancient Egypt, a new pharaoh, Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), has been appointed after his father dies. The fiery new pharaoh has help at his side in the form of his stepbrother, Moses (Christian Bale). Many years before, an orphaned infant Moses was picked up in the Nile River and taken into the home and temple of the then pharaoh, Ramses' father. The Hebrew man grew up somewhat knowing his past, his blood, but he's moved on...until now. Seeing his stepbrother as a potential threat to his throne, Ramses exiles his brother. Moses survives though, starts a family in a far-off, isolated village and moves on. Years pass though and he continues to hear the plight of the Hebrew people working as slaves under Egyptian rule, still the cruel Ramses. There has long been rumors and teachings that someone will save the Hebrews, and that man may just be Moses himself. Can he realize it? Can he go back to Egypt and convince his brother to peacefully let the slaves go?

So basically everyone knows the story of Moses, of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the plagues one after another, the parting of the Red Sea and the eventual 40 years of wandering in the desert. I read about it a ton as a kid growing up, at home and in school, and then I saw the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, still shown on ABC every Easter. That's both a good and bad thing for Scott's epic. It's familiar...but it's familiar. I liked it but didn't love it. There's the necessary spectacle and scale you need in a biblical/historical epic and a solid cast, but there are equal part flaws and misses that handicap the movie's potential.

There seems to be a trend going on in history books, on history documentaries, miniseries, all of the above. I think it's a good trend, one I've enjoyed watching as it develops. It's pretty simple. Look at history with a questioning eye. Did the Exodus story happen just as the Old Testament said it did? No, probably not, and that's where Scott steps in. In the movie's strongest moments, he's able to blend that Old Testament story with a fresh eye, a clean look at the story. In a different sense (and a necessary one), he tries to distance himself from The Ten Commandments, many viewers most familiar connection to the story. What was Moses like? What was Ramses like? What was the world they lived in throughout ancient Egypt? It provides a fascinating jumping off point into a dark, dirty, violent and particularly nasty world that we thought we knew.

Christian Bale is one of my favorites. I thought he was the best thing going by far in American Hustle, his Batman movies are great, and if he's in a cast, I'm pretty likely to at least give the movie a chance. In a cast that features quite a cast but not much in the term of characters, Bale is the one to get out unscathed and represent himself quite well. His Moses is a three-dimensional person, a man struggling with what may be his destiny, his fate, the thing he's supposed to do with his life. Is it going to be easy? Not in the least, and that's what he's grappling with. When it comes right down to it, will he make that difficult decision? Bale isn't great, but he's pretty good in a cool leading role. Edgerton too is one of my favorites, a budding star looking for those great roles that will propel him into stardom, but this isn't it. The script does him no favors, an old school, power-hungry villain who comes across as more cliched than a real person. Too bad because Bale and Edgerton's scenes together are a high point. I just wish there was more of them.

The rest of the cast is given little to nothing to do. The names are impressive but any sense of character development was left by the wayside. Look for John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul, Maria Valverde, Andrew Tarbet and Ben Kingsley in smaller parts. Two solid smaller parts go to Ben Mendelsohn as a cruel district commander who couldn't care less about the slaves he rules over and young Isaac Andrews as Malak, a child who is God's human representation on Earth, communicating with Moses about what's to come. A scary, intense performance from a talented young actor. I especially liked Bale and Andrews together in their scenes, especially when Paul's Joshua looks on, not seeing Bale talk to anything at all. What he sees is a man seemingly talking to himself in the middle of the desert. Uh-oh, here we go with some faith-based questions again!

 Now if the focus isn't on character development, it's gotta be somewhere else, right? You would be correct. 'Exodus' embraces the moment in terms of scale and gigantic qualities you'd come to expect from a historical and Biblical epic. The plaques and plights an angry, violent Old Testament God sends down upon Ramses and Egypt are a sight to behold from the locusts, frogs, blood in the water, to the diseases, and most frighteningly, the killing of all the first born sons of Egyptians, these scenes are the movie at its best, strongest and most comfortable. But by far, the most exhilarating scene is the chase across the Red Sea, Moses and thousands of fleeing Hebrews pursued by Ramses and his chariot army as the receding sea charges back at them, the waves growing ever-higher. An incredible sequence, one of those great uses of computer-generated imagery. So in epic terms, this movie is a huge success and well worth seeking out.

I just wish there was more heart somewhere mixed in with the scale and spectacle. It's a pretty decent movie with some great moments. Still worth recommending -- especially to fans of biblical and historical epics -- but it's good. It could have been much more.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

By all accounts, 2015 at the movie box office is the year of BIG MOVIES. Released in early April, Furious 7 zoomed past the $1 billion dollar mark already and was joined this week by Avengers: Age of Ultron, the next big thing in the Marvel franchise. The scary part for my nerdy self is there's still Mad Max, Jurassic World, Spectre, Mission: Impossible, Terminator, and of course, Star Wars to come in theaters. I loved Furious 7 and wouldn't you know it? I loved Avengers too.

In the Eastern European country of Sokovia, the Avengers -- Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) -- are able to fight their way into a Hydra outpost to recover Loki's all-powerful scepter. Back at the Avengers base, Tony Stark wants to use this power for good, using the scepter's power to create a brand of artificial intelligence that could shield the world, to protect it from all threats. Nothing goes quite to plan though as the artificial intelligence uses its ridiculous amount of pressure, calling itself Ultron (voice of James Spader), and escapes across the world's technology intent on destroying the Avengers and ultimately ruling the world. Can this ultra-powerful tool and weapon be stopped? At what cost? Once again, it comes down to the Avengers putting their differences aside to pull off a seemingly impossible mission.

It's been three years since the first Avengers movie hit theaters and tore apart the box office, earning $1.5 billion worldwide. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a franchise that continues to pile up the money, and typically, positive reviews. Fans love them -- for the most part -- and I include myself in that list. These Avengers movies have become the perfect blockbuster, huge, sprawling action adventures with a crazy cast and crazier action. Director Joss Whedon returns to helm this sequel, and even he admits the work that goes into making these movies (Read...the intense, soul-crushing PRESSURE) is brutally tough. Whedon even wrote this daunting screenplay. Potential world-ending villains, double-digit MAIN characters, countless quick, cameo appearances, and the high expectations of the franchise's countless fans, man, that is a TON of pressure.

So yeah, reviews were a little more mixed here than with the first flick. Sure, there are some flaws and hiccups along the way. None of those flaw/hiccups proves to be too big a problem simply because these movies are so damn fun. Like all the franchise entries, there is a certain formula to follow, but 'Ultron' is able to tweak that formula a bit. All the characters are there, the witty banter, the great villains, the world-shattering action. The F-U-N. The story doesn't always make a ton of sense, but it becomes an issue of...well, does it really matter? You sit back, eat some popcorn and go for the ride. It's a relatively long movie at 141 minutes, but it never feels long. Things are moving too fast and there's too many moving pieces for this money-raking sequel to actually slow down.

The biggest appeal for me with the Avengers flicks above the action or the villains or all the craziness is the ridiculous cast. These casts, my goodness, they're epic. With so many characters, we don't always get the depth/development/background you might want, but Whedon's script certainly goes for it. We continue to see the budding rivalry between Iron Man and Captain America, the budding lovey-dovey relationship between Bruce Banner and Black Widow, and I thought the coolest part, getting to know the most-human members of the Avengers, Hawkeye and a secret he's been holding onto and Black Widow and her past as an assassin trained by the KGB. There's so much to cover, a movie clocking in at 141 simply can't give too much character development. These are all characters capable of carrying a movie on their own -- and many of them have -- so when you combine them, it comes together pretty perfectly. There's almost too much talent for it NOT to work.

That cast, that ridiculous list of stars though, it simply isn't enough. Right? Right?!? We need more characters!!! James Spader is perfectly voice-cast as Ultron, the artificial intelligence hell-bent on destroying the world. Spader's voice is silky and smooth and droll and dripping with intimidation. Without ever appearing on-screen, Spader is a scene-stealer. Also joining him in the villains department are Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as the Twins, a Russian brother and sister with special powers, Pietro with super speed and Wanda with mental manipulation. Quite the interesting trio. Also appearing in smaller parts -- but necessary ones -- are Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, Because of the behemoth that is the Marvel universe, there's also Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Hayley Atwell, Stellan Skarsgard, Thomas Kretschmann, and because that wasn't enough, more characters including Linda Cardellini, Claudia Kim, Andy Serkis, and an expanded role -- a very cool one -- for Paul Bettany as Jarvis.

This may come as a bit of sacrilege, but I thought the weakest part of this money-raking sequel is actually the action itself. Look, here's my thoughts. It looks great. It looks polished. It looks CRAZY at times, but you just know none of it is real. It is all CGI to the point you get lost in it. There's not as much emotional punch. Action movies have become so reliant on this stuff that is becomes a crippling crutch. I haven't seen it yet but Mad Max: Fury Road is getting ridiculously positive reviews because the action is real. They went out and filmed it and did the stunts. To a certain extent, the same for Furious 7. The action is great and shown on a huge, world-shattering scale, but it's almost too polished. The exception is the destruction-riddled finale, an incredibly put-together extended action sequence that is able to blend the CGI with the characters and their bonds (and some twists along the way) in an extravaganza of fights and stunts and destruction.

Yeah, there are issues. With this much going on, it would be near impossible for there not to be issues. But by the time you get to the scene where the Avengers -- and some surprising reinforcements -- dig their heels in for a last stand against Ultron's minions, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, and it's all in slow motion...........oh man, fan boy moment! It's hard not to go along for the ride. It isn't perfect, and I liked the first Avengers more, but this is about as entertaining as anything you could ask for. Quite the daunting task taken on by Whedon and his script, but I'll call it booming, flawed gem of a success. Now onto other Marvel films....and there will be tons! The ending especially sets things up nicely for the next Captain America movie, set for release in 2016. Bring it on!

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


With 1960's The Alamo -- one of my two favorite movies -- producer-director-star John Wayne built an entire set in Bracketville, Texas, that included the famous Alamo mission and nearby San Antonio. It was a set that was used in many, many films in the years following, even becoming quite the tourist attraction, before closing in the last few years. One of the best and one of my favorites? A 1968 western called Bandolero!

It's 1867 in Val Verde, Texas -- a small border town not far from the Rio Grande -- where noted outlaw Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) and his gang is caught trying to rob a bank, killing two people in the process. Sentenced to hang, the entire gang is rescued on the gallows by Mace Bishop (James Stewart), who is posing as the hangman. Dee and his men escape, riding out of town hell bent for leather trying to reach Mexico ahead of a posse led by the stubborn Val Verde sheriff, July Johnson (George Kennedy). On the trail, the Bishop gang takes a hostage, Maria Stoner (Raquel Welch), a widow of one of the men killed in the robbery, and continue on to Mexico with the posse close behind. Embarrassed in his town, July Johnson has another reason to pursue the gang as far as they go. He's long been in love with Maria. All sides cross into Mexico into what Maria calls 'territorio bandolero.' Translation? Bandit country, bandits who will kill any and all gringos they come across.

This isn't a classic western, but for me, it's always been one that is a lot of fun. It's from director Andrew McLaglen, a director who specialized in pretty straightforward, almost always pretty entertaining guy's guys movies like this, The Wild Geese, McClintock, The Devil's Brigade and many others. He's one of my favorites just because of that, he made movies that were fun, that were entertaining. This is one of his better efforts, a western with a great cast, an interesting premise, and some tweaks and twists and turns in a story that tries to blaze its own trail. Again, not a classic, but damn entertaining and one of my little-known movies I consider a personal favorite.

It starts with two of my favorite actors, Jimmy Stewart and Dean Martin, in lead roles. The character premise is familiar but handled nicely. These are two brothers torn apart by the Civil War, Stewart's Mace fighting for the Union while Martin's Dee fought with the South, specifically Quantrill's Raiders. Now, years later they're brought back together by dumb luck, some coincidence and one brother desperately trying to help the others. These are two good actors, and they carry the dramatic moments. It's especially cool to see Martin in a villain role, albeit a likable villain. The middle portion of the movie is carried by their scenes as they reunite, talk things out, plan for the future, all the while trying to mend their differences. So yeah, they're on the wrong side of the law, but...meh, it's Jimmy Stewart and Dean Martin so you kinda go with it.

As for the Bishop gang, look for Will Geer as the crotchety old man, Pop Chaney, his ill-mannered, probably a little off son, Joe (Tom Heaton), Babe Jenkins (Clint Richie), a deadshot with a rifle and a bit of a ladies man, and Robbie O'Hare (Sean McClory), the hard-living, loving-life Scotsman. An interesting, nasty group to round out the gang.

The rest of the cast ranges from interesting to good to good-looking. Kennedy is underused but very solid as Sheriff Johnson, the peace officer trying to do his job but he's got some ulterior motives for his actions. I also have always liked Andrew Prine as Roscoe Bookbinder, Johnson's loyal deputy. Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry was apparently a big fan of this movie and used both character names and general descriptions in that novel. As for Raquel Welch, she's trying, really doing up a Mexican accent. It isn't nearly as bad as some reviews make it out to be -- the script doesn't do her any favors -- but it isn't especially good either. Shallow dude time though, she looks as beautiful as ever. Plenty more familiar faces though including Denver PyleRudy Diaz (the bandit leader), Harry Carey Jr.Perry Lopez, and Dub Taylor.

Now for that Alamo Village portion of our programming. McLaglen uses the Alamo set to good use with two extended set pieces, the opening being Val Verde, the robbery and then the eventual escape. The finale is actually on the Alamo mission set, an abandoned town set among the ruins of the bombed out fort. They try to disguise the recognizable chapel face, but you can't miss it if you're paying attention. It's a great use of the locations, Utah and Arizona also serving as some locations. Also, one more thing. I love composer Jerry Goldsmith, but this is one of his favorites, a score I absolutely love. The use of a mouth harp over the opening credits is an odd choice, but does it ever work. The rest of the score is more action-packed western themes, but it's catchy, memorable and a great support to all the action. Give it a listen HERE.

If there's an issue in this McLaglen western, it's that the script has a great opening set piece and a memorable, blood and guts finale. In the middle....yeah, things drag at times. There's a couple campfire scenes, Maria getting to know Dee, Dee reacquainting himself with Mace, and all the while Johnson's posse tangles with a large gang of bandits. Never boring, but never as exciting as the beginning and end. Now that ending/finale? Yikes, it packs a wallop, packs quite a punch and does so while delivering some genuine surprises. Quite an ending to one of my favorites. A perfectly entertaining little western. Nothing more, nothing less.

Bandolero! (1968): ***/****

Rewrite of February 2010 review

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Secret of Santa Vittoria

Sometimes you just have to hit me over the head to get your message or an idea across. Today's lesson? Something I've picked up over recent weeks as I've watched Ride, Vaquero!, Guns for San Sebastian, today's review for 1969's The Secret of Santa Vittoria, and hopefully a couple more soon that are sitting on my DVR. I've always liked Anthony Quinn a lot, but my goodness, could this guy act. Today's review is one that's unfortunately been forgotten over the years, a World War II drama with some laughs mixed in. Oh, and a scene-stealing part for Mr. Quinn.

It's the middle of World War II and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini has been deposed, leaving the country up for grabs by occupying German forces fighting the Allied advance. And then there's the mountain town of Santa Vittoria where a man named Italo Bombolini (Quinn) has lived his whole life. A drunk, a bit of a goof, he is well-liked if not well respected by the town. In fact, he's a bit of a punchline. Through a series of misunderstandings, Bombolini is named Mayor of the town. Ever one to embrace the spotlight, the jovial Italo takes the position but news soon reaches the town that German forces will occupy the town soon. What does the town hold dearest? What is it most known for? It's wine, made and bottled locally. Check that. A LOT of wine, 1.3 million bottles. The Germans no doubt want to get their hands on the product. What is Bombolini to do? With the Germans, including commander, Captain Von Prum (Hardy Kruger), fast approaching, the town comes up with a hide the wine. Can they do it without endangering their lives?

I remember clearly stumbling across this movie back in 2008. It was right in my period of awakening when it came to movies goodness, there's HUNDREDS and THOUSANDS of movies out there I haven't seen. Sure, there are some duds (a lot of them I suppose), but then you come across gems like this. I loved this movie then and still love it now. The weirdest part? It hasn't held much of a reputation in the years since. So what can we take away from that thought? Go track down a copy. Look for it On-Demand. Check iTunes. Look on Turner Classic Movie's schedule. If you're a fan of Anthony Quinn, of war movies, of Italy, of wine, any and all, you'll like this movie. Go find it!

'Secret' comes from director Stanley Kramer who by 1969 had a long list of classic and near-classic films to his name. Personally, I put this WWII drama (with some comedy) at or near the top of that list. Yeah, it's a little broad at times, a little stereotypical, but never anything that cripples the message. This isn't a battlefront movie or a story about the horrors of war. It is about the people, the human beings that become involved in a cat and mouse game on the line? To these people in Santa Vittoria, that wine is their identity. It's what their town stands for. So when someone is going to come and just take it away, they decide to do something about it. The extended scene where the townspeople actually hide the wine through some ingenious thinking is one of the movie's highlights. I can't put my finger on why this movie doesn't have more of a following. One big reason to like it though is simple. It's different and tries to be different...and succeeds on all levels.

So, yeah, here we sit again. That Anthony Quinn fella, man, he could act. This performance is Quinn at his big, boisterous, loving life, larger than life persona. In another actor's hands, you might accuse him of chewing the scenery, but with Quinn, it never feels forced. His Italo Bombolini character is a scream. He loves life, loves wine, loves his family and friends...but he loves all those things at the cost of, well, a work ethic. Not the town drunk, this is a man who isn't taken very seriously by the town and its people. Thrust into a power position, he takes advantage, especially when news of the German's coming occupation is discovered. Quinn fills the screen with this manic energy no matter what the scene calls for. Pure joy and blind rage, he's able to flip the switch back and forth with ease and without driving the audience away. It's not a part remembered as his best or most memorable, but it's one of my favorites for a ridiculously talented actor.

There isn't a misfire in the entire cast. Not huge names, but some very talented actors and actresses. Anna Magnani is excellent as Rosa, Italo's wife who's grown sick of his antics and kicks him out their house, with Patrizia Valturri as their 16-year old daughter, Angela. Kruger is excellent too as the German commander, avoiding the cliches of the brutal German officer. He's a soldier, not a blood-crazy Nazi...but yeah, he's still got an intimidating edge. Also look for Virna Lisi as Caterina, a beautiful widow who's come back to her hometown, Sergio Franchi as a wounded Italian soldier and deserter who's come back to Santa Vittoria to heal (and hide), Renato Rascel as Babbaluche, Italo's best friend who's always ready with a criticism, and a young Giancarlo Giannini as Fabio, Italo's young friend, a college student and possible suitor for Angela.

Watching this WWII comedy-drama for a second time, I was reminded of some similarities with another classic war film, 1964's The Train. War is horrific in terms of lives loss, but at what point do other things become something worth risking lives? In 'Train,' it was priceless works of art. In 'Vittoria,' it's wine. It is handled in subtle fashion, but the question definitely makes you think. When push comes to shove, with a gun to your head, do you reveal a secret about hidden wine? It's an interesting question, one that definitely forces you to contemplate the lunacy of war.

Just an excellent movie. It was filmed on location in Anticoli Corrado and Capranica, Lazio in Italy. The town setting for Santa Vittoria is stunningly beautiful, as is the Italian countryside surrounding the town on all sides. It adds an additional layer to the film, a feeling of authenticity as if we've been transported to 1940s Italy. A tad slow at times at 140 minutes, the movie is at its strongest in the final hour-plus. The ending especially is highly memorable, Quinn stealing the scene and the show in general. Highly recommended. A forgotten gem.

The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969): ****/****

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Water Diviner

Russell Crowe has been working consistently in films since the 1990s. He's picked up three Oscar nominations for his acting, winning for 2000's Gladiator while earning nominations but not winning for 1999's The Inside and 2001's A Beautiful Mind. Like many actors though, Crowe isn't working just in front of the camera. He just happened to get behind the camera as a director. His directorial debut is getting some solid reviews while also making some decent box office. Here's 2014's The Water Diviner.

It's 1919 and the world is still moving on and recovering from the horrors and losses of World War I. At their remote ranch and home in the Australian Outback, a father and husband, Joshua Connor (Crowe) is especially dealing with those losses. He lost all three of his sons to the war, all three of his boys killed during the fighting at Gallipoli. Years later, his wife is finally undone by the loss of her boys and takes her own life, leaving Joshua alone and looking for answers. Where does he look? Both for his own sanity and for the memory of his family, Joshua decides to go find his boys, or at least their bodies buried somewhere in the hell that was no man's land. Bodies were often buried where they fell and a huge effort has been made to identity the corpses but what a daunting task. Connor figures he has no better alternative and leaves Australia, traveling to Turkey and the scarred battle sites, looking for some sort, any sort of closure.

Come on now, it's Russell Crowe! This is a throwback type of star who you could see starring in any number of big screen epics, biblical stories and large scale westerns. He's got the on-screen persona and the acting chops to carry the load so it's appropriate that Crowe cuts his directing teeth on a large-scale period piece with the aftermath of World War I as its backdrop. This is the guy behind Gladiator, Master and Commander, Robin Hood, even a western like 3:10 to Yuma. He knows what he's doing, and that's pretty clear from the get-go!

The premise is a little bit like a quixotic venture straight out of Don Quijote. It is a man searching for something, for answers, for closure, like a needle in a haystack. That father looking for answers has been explored with a whole unintentional sub-genre of films, anything from In the Valley of Elah to Shenandoah. 'Diviner' works in those heavy, emotional father son moments, most of that relationship shown through three or four quick flashbacks. We never get to learn much about Joshua's boys so all we have to rely on is that always important relationship between a father and his sons. Who will he meet along the way? What will he find? That's the beauty of the road story like this, albeit with some tweaks here and there. The post-WWI backdrop is fascinating, unsettling and uncomfortable. I know little about the history in Turkey in the late 1910s/early 1920s, but it was clearly an incredibly turbulent time. In other words, how do you find what happened to three young men in a war that took millions, four years later, and that country is still at war? Let the search begin.

Russell Crowe is the Man. He's one of my favorites, a star who's struggled over recent years to find those great roles that turned him into a star, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, The Insider. Like John Wayne in a western, Crowe looks and feels comfortable in these historical period pieces. It is a strong, emotional, sympathetic part for Crowe as he plays Australian rancher/father/husband trying to find some answers, any answers, to bring some closure to a hellish situation. The acting and the character provide the heart and crux of the story. It's hard not to sympathize with a father who at least partially blames himself for the deaths of his sons. The quiet moments resonate, especially as he continues to read to his boys long after their death....because that's what fathers do. The most gut-wrenching scenes have Joshua out on the still war-torn battlefields, trying to find some clue or evidence of his boys.

Who else to look for? The most familiar face is Olga Kurylenko as a Turkish woman and single mother who owns a hotel in Turkey and gives a room to Connor in his search. Yeah, the developing love story isn't the greatest, but it isn't awful either, two struggling people finding a bond and potentially more. Dylan Georgiades is solid too as her young son who clicks immediately with Connor. I thought the best supporting parts were Yilmaz Erdogan and Cem Yilmaz as two Turkish officers who get involved with Connor as he searches, all the men working through some hatred, prejudices and biases. Also look for Jai Courtney (Unbroken, Starz's Spartacus), a budding young actor who seems destined for big things. He plays a British officer tasked on the burial detail of finding, identifying and re-burying the dead soldiers from the fighting years before. The Connor boys are played by Ryan Corr, James Fraser, and Ben O'Toole.

Making his directorial debut, Crowe set out to do something daunting in directing a big, sprawling and emotional epic set against a family backdrop in a world still torn apart by war. For the most part, I think he succeeded. There are moments where maybe a bigger budget would have helped, but nothing crippling. The battle scenes are violent and uncomfortable but not graphic. It is a beautiful-looking movie with Australia and Turkey both serving as filming locations. The musical score is big and booming without being overbearing as well. 'Diviner' is at its strongest moments with Crowe's Connor out on the trail, in offices, traveling, doing anything he can to find his sons. It slows down at times when the love story develops, but things definitely pick up in the finale. A tad slow at times in general, but overall? A successful debut for Mr. Crowe. An easy movie to recommend!

The Water Diviner (2015): ***/****

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


By the late 1960s and into the 1970s, John Wayne's movies became more familiar, more safe. You know what though? There's a comfort in familiarity, and there's some genuinely good movies in the bunch. Today's review is one of those efforts, telling one of the more famous stories of the wild west that ranks up there with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral or the Battle of the Little Big Horn. That story? The Lincoln County War. That movie? 1970's Chisum.

It's 1878 in the New Mexico territory, and aging rancher John Chisum (Wayne) has carved an immense cattle ranch out of the wilderness, made it all into something to behold. He's preparing for his niece, Sallie (Pamela McMyler), to come and visit the ranch, but there's some serious issues to be dealt with. An equally powerful man with some serious financial backing, Lawrence Murphy (Forrest Tucker), has moved into Lincoln County and is looking to take over. Take over EVERYTHING. First up on his list? Buying the sheriff, the bank, and scooping up all the land he can and drive Chisum out as quick as he can. Chisum is well-rooted though, and nothing is going to come easy for the despicably vicious, greedy Murphy. There's a wild card in the entire situation though, a young, fiery gunfighter with a fast-growing reputation and a fast draw with his pistol, William Bonney (Geoffrey Deuel), better known as Billy the Kid.

I've loved John Wayne and his movies since I was a little kid. Hopefully, I always will! I hadn't seen this 1970 western from director Andrew McLaglen in years until a recent showing on Turner Classic Movies gave me the opportunity to revisit it. Am I glad I did! It is different, telling the mostly true story of the Lincoln County War with some artistic license thrown in here and there. A lot of familiar faces, filming locations in Durango, Mexico where other Wayne ventures (The War Wagon, Sons of Katie Elder, The Undefeated, The Train Robbers) were filmed, a memorable score from Dominic Frontiere, and cinematographer William Clothier bringing the Mexican locations to life, yeah, it IS familiar. That's not a bad thing. I loved catching up with the movie and liked it much more than I remember. There's just enough different here to keep things interesting. And let's face it, the story and recognizable historical characters are a great backdrop for that mostly true story.

Okay, one of the most famous stories of the wild west. What do we need? How about a movie star capable of leading the way? In 1970, Wayne was still at the top of his game. He had the tough guy hero part down to an art with decades of practice. That is most definitely a compliment. Wayne was always at home in the western, and that's the case here. His Chisum -- based on the real-life John Chisum -- becomes a figurehead of the west. Years before, Chisum moved west into New Mexico and carved out a cattle ranch out of the land. Now, he's learning to slowly, begrudgingly changing with the times to survive. A testament to Wayne here is that he's not on-screen a ton. Yes, he's the star, but the Hollywood legend is content to let other members of a solid ensemble step into the limelight. When he is in the limelight? It's Duke at his tough as nails best, playing straight man to a bunch of antics while also stealing the camera, especially in a late confrontation with Tucker's Murphy. Nothing flashy, just a western professional.

Part of the fun here is the familiar names and characters popping up. The Billy the Kid story has been told in the Young Guns movies, The Left-Handed Gun, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Outlaw and many more I'm probably forgetting. I liked the spin Deuel puts on young William Bonney, a brash kid trying to put a checkered past behind him. He may be too good with a gun to let it happen though. Deuel's scenes with Glenn Corbett's Pat Garrett are a highlight, especially knowing where these two men end up. Also look for peaceful, second-chance rancher John Tunstall (Patric Knowles), Alex McSween (Andrew Prine, with his wife Lynda Day George), corrupt Sheriff Brady (Bruce Cabot), and more than a few familiar faces in the background.

The cast is one of Chisum's best features. Tucker is a slimy, nasty, slithery villain, with both Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel as his brutal enforcers. Another Just Hit Play favorite, Ben Johnson is Pepper, Wayne's right-hand man, a mumbling cowboy who'd rather solve a problem with his gun than his words, a part similar to the one he played in both The Undefeated and The Train Robbers. You ready though for some other names? Take a deep breath with me. Also look for John Agar, Robert Donner, Ray Teal, Hank Worden, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Edward Faulkner, Christopher Mitchum and plenty of faces from the John Wayne stock company. Quite the cast. QUITE a group of tough guys, a McLaglen specialty. 

About as good as a traditional western can get. There's good guys, dastardly bad guys, shootouts to be had, and set against the backdrop against one of the wild west's most famous/infamous incidents ever. Something really hit me with this most recent watch, and I came away more impressed than I'd been with previous viewings. Hopefully, you'll like it just as much!

Chisum (1970): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, May 4, 2015

North by Northwest

Name a great director. A truly great one. Someone like Stanley Kubrick, John Ford, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, and for today's review, Alfred Hitchcock. Ask any fan what their favorite movie is from their favorite actor, and you'll no doubt get some great answers; some agreed upon on and others surprising. For Mr. Hitchcock though, the Master of Suspense himself, that favorite movie is not worth arguing about, and I don't think it's that close either. Here's 1959's North by Northwest, my favorite Hitchcock movie by far and one of the best movies ever.

Working as an ad executive in New York City, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) leads quite the bachelor life in Manhattan. Well, he did lead quite the bachelor life. Visiting clients at lunch, Thornhill is taken by gunpoint out of the restaurant and driven to an isolated countryside mansion far from the city. There he meets a mysterious but eerily calm man, Vandamm (James Mason), who begins to ask him questions, questions that Thornhill has absolutely no idea how to answer. What do the questions lead Thornhill to believe? These men believe he's some sort of secret agent, a government official who's trying to stop them from doing...well, something. Vandamm and Co. have had enough though and decide to kill Thornhill, but he manages to escape. Now what? No one believes his improbable story. NO ONE. These men won't leave him alone though, and now, Thornhill is being framed for murder. He goes on the run, and the key to his safety may be a similarly mysterious but very beautiful young woman (Eva Marie Saint). Can Thornhill figure it out before his time runs out?

Sometimes, you just tip your cap to someone at the top of their game. That's Alfred Hitchcock here directing this 1959 mystery thriller. With more than a few genuine classics to his name already, Hitchcock hits this one out of the stadium. It's perfect. Smart, funny, frightening, impressive, so many adjectives come to mind. It's that Hitchcock does it all so seamlessly too. One scene, the tension is dripping off the screen. The next Grant and Saint engage some of the more scandalous dialogue to come out of the dialogue. Next up, a ridiculously charged chase scene. The movie clocks in at 136 minutes and covers a ton of ground, impressive when you consider the story basically has no plot, no huge reveals. So as I said, tip your cap. Some movies are untouchable, and this is planted firmly on that list. A master director at his absolute best.

A true test of a director's legacy is that all-important impact he/she makes with their films. One of Hitchcock's many, even countless impressions he's made is a little ditty called the 'macguffin.' It is a plot device that is SO FREAKING IMPORTANT, but never gets explained in the least. Like AT ALL. That's this entire movie. It's a movie about secret agents and the hidden government offices who run them. It's about bad guys who hold diabolical government secrets and must be stopped at all costs. So in that sense, there's literally no plot here. Yeah, Grant's Thornhill must stop Mason's Vandamm but...whatever. This is an epic case of mistaken identity that snowballs into something far more sinister, dangerous and potentially deadly. It takes a brave, talented and gutsy director to pull something like that off. I've always thought the 1950s were Hitchcock's strongest decade, and this is leading the way out front.

I got the sense watching 'Northwest' recently for this review that the Thornhill character was probably written for a younger actor. You know what though? It doesn't matter. Yeah, maybe Cary Grant was a little older than intended for the character, but his charming, likable on-screen persona and his smooth, deadpan delivery is beyond perfect for the part. As this case of mistaken identity unravels, Grant's charming, gentlemanly indignation fits effortlessly into the story. His chemistry with the lovely Eva Marie Saint is one of the best in film history, simple as that. Their dialogue is scandalous even a little bit now, ahead of its time for sure. You watch their scenes together and marvel. Just sit back and enjoy it. Hitchcock reveled in thumbing his nose at Hollywood's so-called rules, and my goodness, he pushes the envelope any time he can. I have to wonder, did the censors and studio just allow it? It's just too good to pass up.

The cast is so disgustingly good everywhere you look. Mason is the perfect foil to Grant, similarly charming, calculating and with a touch of diabolical intent. His henchmen are terrifying without saying more than a few words, Martin Landau and the creepiest eyes ever and Adam Williams as his knife-wielding enforcer. Just eight years older than Cary Grant, Jessie Royce Landis has a ball as Thornhill's worrying mother, the comic straight woman to all these antics, including her classic encounter with Landau and Williams in a packed elevator. There's also a great little part as Leo G. Carroll as the Professor, a mysterious, distinguished man interested in seeing how the proceedings develop. There's too many other familiar faces with small parts that pop up here and there to mention, but I noticed a cool, quick and you'll blink moment with a young Jeremy Slate as an alert policeman in Grant Central Station. A cool, very early part for a Just Hit Play favorite!

I hadn't watched this movie in years straight through, and man, it was fun catching up with this classic film. From Saul Bass' incredible credit sequence -- watch it HERE -- to composer Bernard Herrmann's phenomenal musical score -- give it a listen HERE -- this movie is technically perfect. Hitchcock uses some great visual tricks from matte paintings and green-screen techniques that trick your eye into seeing something you're not and doing it without calling attention to those techniques. Again, Hitchcock puts it all together. Sit back and take it all in.  

Talk to fans of the movie, and there's countless scenes that they'll mention as their favorites. There's the climactic chase ON Mount Rushmore (WHAT?!?), the painfully tension-riddled scene at an isolated crossroads with quite a twist in maybe the movie's most iconic scenes, and that's just two I'm willing to mention. If you haven't seen this movie, you are in for a treat. If you have seen it, go back and revisit 'Northwest.' There are few movies that click on all cylinders like Hitchcock's classic film does. From New York City to Chicago to Rapid City, a thrill a minute ride. A true, TRUE classic.

North by Northwest (1959): ****/****

Friday, May 1, 2015

Guns for San Sebastian

You know who’s pretty cool? Anthony Quinn. I don’t always think of Mr. Quinn as one of my favorite movie stars, but my goodness, did this man have a hell of a career. Zorba the Greek, The Guns of Navarone, Viva Zapata, Lawrence of Arabia, he did it all. One of my favorites though is a little known, generally forgotten quasi-spaghetti western from 1967,Guns for San Sebastian.

It’s the late 1740s in Mexico, and bandit Leon Alastray (Quinn) is in trouble and on the run. Wounded after the rest of his gang is killed or captured, Leon is saved by a faithful, well-meaning old priest, Father Joseph (Sam Jaffe). When Joseph refuses to turn Leon over, he quietly accepts his punishment to the far-off, possibly abandoned desert town of San Sebastian. Feeling like he owes the old priest, Leon accompanies him far out into the desert to the town and finds…nothing. When their plan goes awry though and the villagers return, it is Leon who must pretend to be a priest and help the village not just recover, but survive. Why? The villagers have come under the “protection” of a half-breed bandit, Teclo (Charles Bronson), who is also working with the warring Yaqui Indians. What is Leon to do?

This quasi-spaghetti western from director Henri Verneuil has virtually no reputation within the genre. Why? Well, it’s a spaghetti western in name only really. It isn’t gunfighter anti-heroes and evil bandits and extreme violence. To call it an epic isn’t fair, but it is an above average, highly entertaining period piece. It is set in Mexico in the 1740s so not your typical background setting, but for me, it worked because ‘Guns’ is trying something different. This is a gem, one of my favorite underrated movies that deserves a far bigger reputation.

For starters, it’s Anthony Quinn. What a great actor, what a great presence. Accused at times of stealing scenes and other times of chewing the scenery, I’ve always thought just the opposite. He just goes with the part. His Leon character is fascinating both within the spaghetti western but also the western genre in general. He’s not a cardboard cutout, an emotionless killer. Leon goes through a change over the course of the movie. We see him grow and develop and fight for what he believes is right. It just so happens that his decision-making now impacts a whole village. I’ll get into this more in a bit, but the obvious comparison for the film and character is The Magnificent Seven.

Quinn’s Leon has been a bad, bad dude with bounties over his head and soldiers always on his trail. Out of desperation and survival, he follows this priest into a desert wasteland. Once he arrives in San Sebastian, Leon starts to make tough choices, not just selfish choices. So where The Magnificent Seven had seven gunfighters, here we have only one, but the premise is the same, bad guys to anti-heroes to gunfighters doing what’s right, not necessarily what’s easy. He also gets to cozy up to one of the women in the village (Anjanette Comer) who knows his secret. It’s just a cool dynamic though, the supposed savior and the village needing some sort of help, familiar but tweaked.

So if we have an interesting flawed main character, we need a worthy opponent, right? Who better than Charles Bronson? In the mid 1960s headed to Europe and became one of the world’s biggest stars, and he’s having some fun here. It isn’t the most well-written, developed villain, but it’s a good part. Who else to look for? Jaffe is excellent in a smaller part and Comer is good too, shoving aside the helpless female role that’s all too familiar in the western. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos too has a fun part as Cayetano, an architect tasked with building a wall-like fort around San Sebastian to hold back an attack. Jaime Fernandez plays Golden Lane, the Yaqui chief, with some familiar faces among the villagers if you’re a fan of ‘Magnificent Seven’ and The Wild Bunch. There’s also small parts for Silvia PinalLeon AskinPedro Armendariz Jr., and Jorge Russek.    

‘Guns’ has a ton going for it beyond the acting. As mentioned, the story is both familiar and unique in how it develops. It was filmed on-location in Mexico with several familiar locations in and around Durango, including El Saltito waterfalls that’s also been seen in Major Dundee, The Train Robbers and Sons of Katie Elders among others. It’s the rare spaghetti western filmed away from Spain and Italy. Also, master of the genre when it comes to soundtracks, composer Ennio Morricone delivers an absolute gem, a beautiful score that isn’t as big and booming as some of his more well-known scores. Listen to an extended sample HERE.  Morricone’s score playing over the final scene is one of my all-time favorites. As always, it’s always a plus when the littler things come through in such strong fashion.

I’ve seen this movie three or four times now, and it gets better each time. Great performances, interesting story, an impressively staged, large-scale action scene, memorable score, and an excellent, appropriate ending. Highly recommended and well worth tracking down.

Guns for San Sebastian (1967): *** ½ /****